Chesterton Tribune

Birds and balopticons: Museums celebrate legacy of William and Flora Richardson

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Local history buffs can double dip this summer with two exhibits focusing on the life and artistry of Dunes photographer William Richardson.

“The Lives and Legacies of William and Flora Richardson” at the Westchester Township History Museum runs in conjunction this summer with “The Photography of William D. Richardson” at the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University.

The former explores the biographical aspects of Richardson and his wife starting with his career as a chemist working for the Chicago meat packing Swift & Co. to Flora Richardson’s establishment of the Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary; the latter presents many examples of William Richardson’s talent as a photographer in the early days of the medium and his contributions to the Pictorialist movement.

Birds, birds, birds

William Richardson moved with his family from Niles, Mich. to Chicago in 1890 at age 14 and was already passionate about one subject in particular – birds. At the Westchester exhibit, on display is Richardson’s bird journal from the time he was 14. Museum curator Serena Sutliff and registrar Joan Costello, who curated the project together, said Richardson wrote many journals on birds in his lifetime but the one from his adolescence is the only one which still exists. Sutliff said she was impressed by the precision Richardson showed at a young age. “For a 14-year-old, it’s very detailed and scientific,” Sutliff said.

A quote from that journal perfectly showcases his fondness for his feathered subjects.

“If I catch the part of a bird song between the rumble and roar of the city, it is to me like a burst of sunshine on a wet and rainy day,” Richardson wrote.

Richardson was noted in his obituary as being active in many ornithological societies and was “one of the best informed men in the country” when it came to bird life.

Many of Richardson’s bird photos were made at Indiana Dunes. He would go to great lengths to get the shot he wanted of a nesting bird and knew where to look. For example, a type of dead tree would be the prime location for the Great Horned Owl. Art enthusiasts on four continents took notice of Richardson’s bird photos.

A little bit of chemistry

Richardson attended the University of Chicago but abandoned his studies to work at Swift & Co. in 1899 and became Chief Chemist two years later. In 1909, he began The Journal of Industrial Chemistry, a first of its kind magazine which he edited.

Costello said Richardson was responsible for finding uses for “rather unsavory by-products of the slaughtering business” such as fertilizers, oils and medicines. Swift & Co. was one of the largest meat packing companies in the country due to its use of refrigerated rail cars. Richardson had a hand in significant methods of preserving and curing meat.

William and Flora married in 1901 and lived in the Hyde Park area of Chicago’s South Side, actively participating in the cultural atmosphere of the time. Sutliff said they were exemplary as a modern couple, taking in concerts, operas and lectures in Chicago. The pair collected hundreds of books on science, art and philosophy. They were active members of the Chicago Prairie Club and drew attention to the Dunes as a potential national park.

Sassafras Lodge

Numerous times a year, the Richardsons would escape to the Indiana Dunes where they built a hut, which they called the “Sassafras Lodge” in the early 1900s where Dune Acres is now. Visitors to the Westchester museum can see photos of the “Sassafras Lodge,” which more frankly looks like a teepee. Alice Gray used lived inside when the Richardsons were not there. Gray is more famously known as “Diana of the Dunes.”

The hut evolved into a more permanent cabin by 1910. The museum has the only existing photograph of the cabin. William added on a separate darkroom which later burned down. Flora formally purchased the acreage the cabin was on in 1940, four years after William’s death. She moved there permanently in 1958 and established the Wildlife Sanctuary that same year to preserve her and William’s books, journals, and photographs.

Flora lived there for two years before her death in 1960 and used the property as a nature preserve. She wrote about looking over the Dunes to her friends and had a bench outside where she would avidly read poems. The Westchester museum pays homage in the exhibit to this by including a bench similar to Flora’s surrounded by sand.

The house was torn down in 2005 but the books and photographs are now stored in the Richardson Archives at the Westchester Township History Museum. Costello estimated the archives hold over 700 of William Richardson’s photographs and “countless” glass slides.

Richardson and Pictorialism

Aside from birds, William’s other passion was his wife, Costello said, who was a favorite subject for him to photograph. Both exhibits contain images of Flora standing near the Art Institute of Chicago wearing a hat with a wide bride brim, a very popular style at the time.

In 1912, he was sent by Swift & Co. to study chemical discoveries in Europe and brought along his camera, capturing the essence of European cities like Paris and Venice.

The photography exhibit at Brauer Museum of Art features nearly 40 images Richardson made of the dunes, Europe and major cities. Many of them measure approximately 20” x 15”, a ratio aspect of 4:3.

Gloria Ruff, who curated the “Photography” exhibit at the Brauer Museum with director Gregg Hertzlieb, said Richardson was important to the Pictorialist movement. Pictorial artists aimed to create rich, atmospheric landscapes in their photographs that would look more like a painting. To achieve this effect, Ruff said, Pictorialists would frequently hand color their pieces and would use textured printing papers, striving for tonal effects rather than clear definitions.

Richardson’s style takes a particularly careful and sensitive approach to subjects that appear like a charcoal drawing, Ruff said. His use of shadow and focus creates a complex mood and begs the viewer to look deeper into its dreamlike atmosphere. The style conveys not a perfectly chosen moment but more of a timeless feel that only the photographic medium could offer.

“It was all done by a chemical process,” said Ruff, who said the Pictorialist movement was not widely embraced. “People just didn’t realize then what all went into developing film and photographs.”

Museum visitors who study the pictures carefully can see Richardson pressed in his initials, giving them his signature seal.

Not only do the images make note of Richardson’s experiences and interests, but all reveal his thoughts about the craft, Ruff said.

Richardson joined the ranks of notable Pictorial photographers who initially were categorized as members of the Photo Secession, the most notable being Alfred Stieglitz, Ruff said, who the Brauer Museum has studied before.

Christmas cards and

the “balopitican”

“He did so much more than just take pictures,” Sutliff said making the point that Richardson’s talents went beyond the camera. He also designed Christmas cards which he and Flora sent out in the late 1920s, the most favorite being the one with Richardson’s baby owl photograph.

In 1911, William Richardson devised a way for his images to be projected with his creation of the “baloptican,” patented by the Bausch and Lamb Optical Co. The device projected lantern slides, maps or drawings onto a surface by use of reflected light rather than transmitted light. Others used Richardson’s baloptican to study maps and copy texts.

Visitors to the Westchester museum exhibit can get an up-close look at the tool and a breakdown of its parts.

“Baloptican is our new favorite word around here,” Costello said.

Sand in Your Shoes

The Westchester museum adds a treat for those who remember watching educational filmstrips on a projector in school. In the section of the exhibit that pays tribute to Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary, a DVD was made of “Sand in Your Shoes” from the 1960s produced by the RWS and narrated by University of Chicago botanist Erma Pilz.

After Flora’s death, the RWS carried on her wishes to spread environmental education and promote study of the dunes. Today, the organization exists as the Flora Richardson Foundation and supports the institutions that preserve and educate residents about the dunes. The Foundation partnered with the Westchester Twp. and Brauer museums, loaning many of the photographs for the two exhibits.

Featured members of the RWS who are honored in the Westchester exhibit include former secretary/treasurer Jean Sprague, librarians/custodians Ben and Janet McKay, and former directors Eileen Fielding and Elma Thiele.

Relics of the original Richardson sanctuary are presented for viewing pleasure. Included are an oversized mailbox and one of its mailing cartons. Cartons were mailed free of charge to schools, nursing homes and non-profit organizations containing slides, audio tapes and filmstrips.

The two exhibits mark the first time the Westchester Twp. History Museum has collaborated on a project with the Brauer Museum of Art. Interest in the complementary exhibits grew, Hertzlieb said, when he and Ruff visited Westchester Twp. Museum and were impressed by the Richardson photographs.

“Working with the Westchester Township History Museum was an absolute pleasure, and we are simply delighted to share Richardson’s fine photographic work with our community,” Hertzlieb said.

The Westchester exhibit, which is free to the public, runs until Sept. 2. Museum hours are 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Tours can be made by appointment at (219)983-9715.

The Brauer exhibit “The Photography of William Richardson” runs through Aug. 5 at 1709 Chapel Drive in Valparaiso. Hours are 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. More information can be found at

 or at (219)464-5365.



Posted 7/5/2012